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Beside Still Waters is a story of murder, rape, revenge, and redemption told from the viewpoints of a white farmer and a young woman of mix-race in early 20th century Mississippi.

Jake is a young, white farmer who witnesses a young boy accidentally murder his own father. Olivia is a young, mixed-race woman newly arrived in the community. Edmunds is an associate of the victim who threatens Jake’s life depending on Jake’s testimony even as he becomes obsessed with Olivia.

 As Jake struggles to determine what he will risk to see justice done, Olivia is struggling with hidden secrets and revelations regarding her parentage.

 Set in the Mississippi Delta in 1905 against the backdrop of the changing seasons and the rhythm of planting, tending, and harvesting, Beside Still Waters tells the story of difficult decisions and expected consequences that trigger a cascade of events leading to tragedy, loss, redemption, and salvation.

 Beside Still Waters vividly recreates another time and place, similar to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain or Jeffery Lent’s A Slant of Light, as it deals with ordinary people coping with issues of ethical choice and racial identity, in short, issues that are, if anything, more relevant today than ever.

Here is a sample.


WINTER, FALLOW

1 - IT HAD BEEN WINTER THEN TOO

 
            The rays of the weak winter sun, diffused by high thin clouds, flooded the kitchen with pale, white light. The old man’s hands rested on the checkered tablecloth that covered the kitchen table, big hands, weathered, curled in repose.

It was warm and quiet in the kitchen with only the susurration of gas vaporizing in the heater, tiny tongues of blue flame heating the waffle pattern of the ceramic bricks cherry red, and the domestic sounds of his wife at the stove. From time to time the northwest wind, sweeping unhindered down from the Great Plains and across the Mississippi Delta, would whip another gust against the house with enough strength to rattle the windows. But inside it was warm and protected.

He told a story which was at one moment rich in vivid, life-giving detail, draping flesh to bone, then opaque, lost in a frustrating paucity of telling features, like an old man’s memory, which it was, dredged up from over sixty years ago, memories long buried, subsumed, as a long-suppressed shame, which in part it was, but recounted now with a firm conviction that the years of silent retrospection had imparted, obliterating any uncertainty or equivocation of thought, will, or intent that might have existed at the time.

He shifted his gaze form the boy across the table and stared absently out the window across the ocher stubble of the pasture to the gray smudge of the distant forest, a diminished remnant of what it had been when he had first come here, still rich in thick stands of oak, wild canebrakes, sloughs and bayous, small game and deer, gray and red fox, too, but a shade of its former self, too little left to sustain the bear and panther which were killed off long ago as the shadowed world they roamed was remorselessly reduced by ax and plow and given over to pasture and field, the woods still wild but no longer primeval, subdued now, diminished if not tamed.

His wife, almost as old as he, adjusted the heat on the stove as she warmed leftovers for supper and listened with belying inattention. She knew some of the story but not all. She never had. They were of time and place, another world really, where the orbits of men and women, the things they shared and discussed, even if married to each other, overlapped far less than in these days.

But it was more than that, much more. There were things he talked about with men, men who shared the same goals, desires, and hopes: bank shares and loans, cotton prices and gin rates and yields per acre, things he would never have even thought to share with her. Just as he would never have presumed to interfere with how she managed their home or raised their children.

But it was even more than that. There had been men he could not understand with motives he could not fathom and threats he could not ignore, things that he wanted desperately to shield her from.

But even that was not the whole of it. He had never shared with his wife, the mother of all his children, the only woman he had ever loved, all that he had risked, all that he had dared, the part of him that he had sacrificed during that first year of their marriage.

The house in which they now lived was larger than that other one but still wood-framed, still simple, still painted white although green striped fabric awnings stretched over metal frames shielded most windows from the remorseless Delta summer sun. That other house, long gone now, had been warmed by wood-burning fireplaces, cooking done in a wood-burning stove. Now gas appliances made all of that easier, although he was not convinced it was better, only easier, but there was something to be said for that.           

It had been winter then too, when it had all started, not deep winter with the ground frozen iron-hard and brittle branches rattling in the northwest wind like the sound their antlers make during the tentative jousting of bucks in rut, but that last gasp of winter when one senses that spring is just holding its breath waiting for the right moment to exhale.

The old man paused and without conscious thought ran the blunt fingertips of his left hand along the scar on his left temple just above the templepiece of his wire-rimmed glasses. The scar was as wide and long as his forefinger, not deep, not puckered, faint, lighter than his sun-browned face, almost white. His big hand drifted down his cheek and across his mouth, then dropped back to the kitchen table.

“This all happened a long time ago, 1905, to be exact. Your grandmother and I had only been married about a year,” the old man spoke slowly, softly.

He hesitated and looked at the boy across the table not sure exactly why he felt compelled, after all these years, to tell the story or why he chose to tell it now, to this boy, one of their many grandchildren. Was it because the boy had spent so much time with them, followed him all over the place until he knew every inch of the farm and woods as well as the old man did, had listened enthralled to so many old stories?

His decision made, the old man continued, “You know, I’ve never told anyone this before, but I have to now. Son, old age doesn’t just take your strength, it takes your memories too. Almost everyone else is gone now. All but one, and she doesn’t know the entire story, no more than I do. When the two of us are gone it will be lost.”

The old man hung his head. “And I don’t want the story lost,” said, even as he thought, too much had happened, things that had shaped him and consequently his entire family, even this smooth-faced, eager boy across that table from him.

He raised his dark eyes and looked into the boy’s face, unlined, innocent, trusting, on the verge of manhood, just a few years younger than he had been when it had all started. The old man paused. Could he have been that young, that innocent then? No, not quite so much. After all, he already had a family at that time and responsibility for a farm, the farm which he now owned and on which he still lived.

“I wadn’t much older than you when I first came to New Bethel,” the old man sighed.

Copywrite 2015 by James Gregory Catledge



     

          


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